Moved as I was by Annie's tears, and gentle style of coaxing, and most of all by my love for her, I yet declared that I could not go, and leave our house and homestead, far less my dear mother and Lizzie, at the mercy of the merciless Doones.
'Is that all your objection, John?' asked Annie, in her quick panting way: 'would you go but for that, John?'
'Now,' I said, 'be in no such hurry'—for while I was gradually yielding, I liked to pass it through my fingers, as if my fingers shaped it: 'there are many things to be thought about, and many ways of viewing it.'
'Oh, you never can have loved Lorna! No wonder you gave her up so! John, you can love nobody, but your oat-ricks, and your hay-ricks.'
'Sister mine, because I rant not, neither rave of what I feel, can you be so shallow as to dream that I feel nothing? What is your love for Tom Faggus? What is your love for your baby (pretty darling as he is) to compare with such a love as for ever dwells with me? Because I do not prate of it; because it is beyond me, not only to express, but even form to my own heart in thoughts; because I do not shape my face, and would scorn to play to it, as a thing of acting, and lay it out before you, are you fools enough to think——' but here I stopped, having said more than was usual with me.
'I am very sorry, John. Dear John, I am so sorry. What a shallow fool I am!'
'I will go seek your husband,' I said, to change the subject, for even to Annie I would not lay open all my heart about Lorna: 'but only upon condition that you ensure this house and people from the Doones meanwhile. Even for the sake of Tom, I cannot leave all helpless. The oat-ricks and the hay-ricks, which are my only love, they are welcome to make cinders of. But I will not have mother treated so; nor even little Lizzie, although you scorn your sister so.'
'Oh, John, I do think you are the hardest, as well as the softest of all the men I know. Not even a woman's bitter word but what you pay her out for. Will you never understand that we are not like you, John? We say all sorts of spiteful things, without a bit of meaning. John, for God's sake fetch Tom home; and then revile me as you please, and I will kneel and thank you.'
'I will not promise to fetch him home,' I answered, being ashamed of myself for having lost command so: 'but I will promise to do my best, if we can only hit on a plan for leaving mother harmless.'
Annie thought for a little while, trying to gather her smooth clear brow into maternal wrinkles, and then she looked at her child, and said, 'I will risk it, for daddy's sake, darling; you precious soul, for daddy's sake.' I asked her what she was going to risk. She would not tell me; but took upper hand, and saw to my cider-cans and bacon, and went from corner to cupboard, exactly as if she had never been married; only without an apron on. And then she said, 'Now to your mowers, John; and make the most of this fine afternoon; kiss your godson before you go.' And I, being used to obey her, in little things of that sort, kissed the baby, and took my cans, and went back to my scythe again.
By the time I came home it was dark night, and pouring again with a foggy rain, such as we have in July, even more than in January. Being soaked all through, and through, and with water quelching in my boots, like a pump with a bad bucket, I was only too glad to find Annie's bright face, and quick figure, flitting in and out the firelight, instead of Lizzie sitting grandly, with a feast of literature, and not a drop of gravy. Mother was in the corner also, with her cheery-coloured ribbons glistening very nice by candle-light, looking at Annie now and then, with memories of her babyhood; and then at her having a baby: yet half afraid of praising her much, for fear of that young Lizzie. But Lizzie showed no jealousy: she truly loved our Annie (now that she was gone from us), and she wanted to know all sorts of things, and she adored the baby. Therefore Annie was allowed to attend to me, as she used to do.
'Now, John, you must start the first thing in the morning,' she said, when the others had left the room, but somehow she stuck to the baby, 'to fetch me back my rebel, according to your promise.'
'Not so,' I replied, misliking the job, 'all I promised was to go, if this house were assured against any onslaught of the Doones.'
'Just so; and here is that assurance.' With these words she drew forth a paper, and laid it on my knee with triumph, enjoying my amazement. This, as you may suppose was great; not only at the document, but also at her possession of it. For in truth it was no less than a formal undertaking, on the part of the Doones, not to attack Plover's Barrows farm, or molest any of the inmates, or carry off any chattels, during the absence of John Ridd upon a special errand. This document was signed not only by the Counsellor, but by many other Doones: whether Carver's name were there, I could not say for certain; as of course he would not sign it under his name of 'Carver,' and I had never heard Lorna say to what (if any) he had been baptized.
In the face of such a deed as this, I could no longer refuse to go; and having received my promise, Annie told me (as was only fair) how she had procured that paper. It was both a clever and courageous act; and would have seemed to me, at first sight, far beyond Annie's power. But none may gauge a woman's power, when her love and faith are moved.
The first thing Annie had done was this: she made herself look ugly. This was not an easy thing; but she had learned a great deal from her husband, upon the subject of disguises. It hurt her feelings not a little to make so sad a fright of herself; but what could it matter?—if she lost Tom, she must be a far greater fright in earnest, than now she was in seeming. And then she left her child asleep, under Betty Muxworthy's tendance—for Betty took to that child, as if there never had been a child before—and away she went in her own 'spring-cart' (as the name of that engine proved to be), without a word to any one, except the old man who had driven her from Molland parish that morning, and who coolly took one of our best horses, without 'by your leave' to any one.
Annie made the old man drive her within easy reach of the Doone-gate, whose position she knew well enough, from all our talk about it. And there she bade the old man stay, until she should return to him. Then with her comely figure hidden by a dirty old woman's cloak, and her fair young face defaced by patches and by liniments, so that none might covet her, she addressed the young man at the gate in a cracked and trembling voice; and they were scarcely civil to the 'old hag,' as they called her. She said that she bore important tidings for Sir Counsellor himself, and must be conducted to him. To him accordingly she was led, without even any hoodwinking, for she had spectacles over her eyes, and made believe not to see ten yards.
She found Sir Counsellor at home, and when the rest were out of sight, threw off all disguise to him, flashing forth as a lovely young woman, from all her wraps and disfigurements. She flung her patches on the floor, amid the old man's laughter, and let her tucked-up hair come down; and then went up and kissed him.
'Worthy and reverend Counsellor, I have a favour to ask,' she began.
'So I should think from your proceedings,'—the old man interrupted—'ah, if I were half my age——'
'If you were, I would not sue so. But most excellent Counsellor, you owe me some amends, you know, for the way in which you robbed me.'
'Beyond a doubt I do, my dear. You have put it rather strongly; and it might offend some people. Nevertheless I own my debt, having so fair a creditor.'
'And do you remember how you slept, and how much we made of you, and would have seen you home, sir; only you did not wish it?'
'And for excellent reasons, child. My best escort was in my cloak, after we made the cream to rise. Ha, ha! The unholy spell. My pretty child, has it injured you?'
'Yes, I fear it has, said Annie; 'or whence can all my ill luck come?' And here she showed some signs of crying, knowing that Counsellor hated it.
'You shall not have ill luck, my dear. I have heard all about your marriage to a very noble highwayman. Ah, you made a mistake in that; you were worthy of a Doone, my child; your frying was a blessing meant for those who can appreciate.'
'My husband can appreciate,' she answered very proudly; 'but what I wish to know is this, will you try to help me?'
The Counsellor answered that he would do so, if her needs were moderate; whereupon she opened her meaning to him, and told of all her anxieties. Considering that Lorna was gone, and her necklace in his possession, and that I (against whom alone of us the Doones could bear any malice) would be out of the way all the while, the old man readily undertook that our house should not be assaulted, nor our property molested, until my return. And to the promptitude of his pledge, two things perhaps contributed, namely, that he knew not how we were stripped of all defenders, and that some of his own forces were away in the rebel camp. For (as I learned thereafter) the Doones being now in direct feud with the present Government, and sure to be crushed if that prevailed, had resolved to drop all religious questions, and cast in their lot with Monmouth. And the turbulent youths, being long restrained from their wonted outlet for vehemence, by the troopers in the neighbourhood, were only too glad to rush forth upon any promise of blows and excitement.
However, Annie knew little of this, but took the Counsellor's pledge as a mark of especial favour in her behalf (which it may have been to some extent), and thanked him for it most heartily, and felt that he had earned the necklace; while he, like an ancient gentleman, disclaimed all obligation, and sent her under an escort safe to her own cart again. But Annie, repassing the sentinels, with her youth restored and blooming with the flush of triumph, went up to them very gravely, and said, 'The old hag wishes you good-evening, gentlemen'; and so made her best curtsey.
Now, look at it as I would, there was no excuse left for me, after the promise given. Dear Annie had not only cheated the Doones, but also had gotten the best of me, by a pledge to a thing impossible. And I bitterly said, 'I am not like Lorna: a pledge once given, I keep it.'
'I will not have a word against Lorna,' cried Annie; 'I will answer for her truth as surely as I would for my own or yours, John.' And with that she vanquished me.
But when my poor mother heard that I was committed, by word of honour, to a wild-goose chase, among the rebels, after that runagate Tom Faggus, she simply stared, and would not believe it. For lately I had joked with her, in a little style of jerks, as people do when out of sorts; and she, not understanding this, and knowing jokes to be out of my power, would only look, and sigh, and toss, and hope that I meant nothing. At last, however, we convinced her that I was in earnest, and must be off in the early morning, and leave John Fry with the hay crop.
Then mother was ready to fall upon Annie, as not content with disgracing us, by wedding a man of new honesty (if indeed of any), but laying traps to catch her brother, and entangle him perhaps to his death, for the sake of a worthless fellow; and 'felon'—she was going to say, as by the shape of her lips I knew. But I laid my hand upon dear mother's lips; because what must be, must be; and if mother and daughter stayed at home, better in love than in quarrelling.
Right early in the morning, I was off, without word to any one; knowing that mother and sister mine had cried each her good self to sleep; relenting when the light was out, and sorry for hard words and thoughts; and yet too much alike in nature to understand each other. Therefore I took good Kickums, who (although with one eye spoiled) was worth ten sweet-tempered horses, to a man who knew how to manage him; and being well charged both with bacon and powder, forth I set on my wild-goose chase.
For this I claim no bravery. I cared but little what came of it; save for mother's sake, and Annie's, and the keeping of the farm, and discomfiture of the Snowes, and lamenting of Lorna at my death, if die I must in a lonesome manner, not found out till afterwards, and bleaching bones left to weep over. However, I had a little kettle, and a pound and a half of tobacco, and two dirty pipes and a clean one; also a bit of clothes for change, also a brisket of hung venison, and four loaves of farmhouse bread, and of the upper side of bacon a stone and a half it might be—not to mention divers small things for campaigning, which may come in handily, when no one else has gotten them.
We went away in merry style; my horse being ready for anything, and I only glad of a bit of change, after months of working and brooding; with no content to crown the work; no hope to hatch the brooding; or without hatching to reckon it. Who could tell but what Lorna might be discovered, or at any rate heard of, before the end of this campaign; if campaign it could be called of a man who went to fight nobody, only to redeem a runagate? And vexed as I was about the hay, and the hunch-backed ricks John was sure to make (which spoil the look of a farm-yard), still even this was better than to have the mows and houses fired, as I had nightly expected, and been worn out with the worry of it.
Yet there was one thing rather unfavourable to my present enterprise, namely, that I knew nothing of the country I was bound to, nor even in what part of it my business might be supposed to lie. For beside the uncertainty caused by the conflict of reports, it was likely that King Monmouth's army would be moving from place to place, according to the prospect of supplies and of reinforcements. However, there would arise more chance of getting news as I went on: and my road being towards the east and south, Dulverton would not lie so very far aside of it, but what it might be worth a visit, both to collect the latest tidings, and to consult the maps and plans in Uncle Reuben's parlour. Therefore I drew the off-hand rein, at the cross-road on the hills, and made for the town; expecting perhaps to have breakfast with Master Huckaback, and Ruth, to help and encourage us. This little maiden was now become a very great favourite with me, having long outgrown, no doubt, her childish fancies and follies, such as my mother and Annie had planted under her soft brown hair. It had been my duty, as well as my true interest (for Uncle Ben was more and more testy, as he went on gold-digging), to ride thither, now and again, to inquire what the doctor thought of her. Not that her wounds were long in healing, but that people can scarcely be too careful and too inquisitive, after a great horse-bite. And she always let me look at the arm, as I had been first doctor; and she held it up in a graceful manner, curving at the elbow, and with a sweep of white roundness going to a wrist the size of my thumb or so, and without any thimble-top standing forth, such as even our Annie had. But gradually all I could see, above the elbow, where the bite had been, was very clear, transparent skin, with very firm sweet flesh below, and three little blue marks as far asunder as the prongs of a toasting-fork, and no deeper than where a twig has chafed the peel of a waxen apple. And then I used to say in fun, as the children do, 'Shall I kiss it, to make it well, dear?'
Now Ruth looked very grave indeed, upon hearing of this my enterprise; and crying, said she could almost cry, for the sake of my dear mother. Did I know the risks and chances, not of the battlefield alone, but of the havoc afterwards; the swearing away of innocent lives, and the hurdle, and the hanging? And if I would please not to laugh (which was so unkind of me), had I never heard of imprisonments, and torturing with the cruel boot, and selling into slavery, where the sun and the lash outvied one another in cutting a man to pieces? I replied that of all these things I had heard, and would take especial care to steer me free of all of them. My duty was all that I wished to do; and none could harm me for doing that. And I begged my cousin to give me good-speed, instead of talking dolefully. Upon this she changed her manner wholly, becoming so lively and cheerful that I was convinced of her indifference, and surprised even more than gratified.
'Go and earn your spurs, Cousin Ridd,' she said: 'you are strong enough for anything. Which side is to have the benefit of your doughty arm?'
'Have I not told you, Ruth,' I answered, not being fond of this kind of talk, more suitable for Lizzie, 'that I do not mean to join either side, that is to say, until——'
'Until, as the common proverb goes, you know which way the cat will jump. Oh, John Ridd! Oh, John Ridd!'
'Nothing of the sort,' said I: 'what a hurry you are in! I am for the King of course.'
'But not enough to fight for him. Only enough to vote, I suppose, or drink his health, or shout for him.'
'I can't make you out to-day, Cousin Ruth; you are nearly as bad as Lizzie. You do not say any bitter things, but you seem to mean them.'
'No, cousin, think not so of me. It is far more likely that I say them, without meaning them.'
'Anyhow, it is not like you. And I know not what I can have done in any way, to vex you.'
'Dear me, nothing, Cousin Ridd; you never do anything to vex me.'
'Then I hope I shall do something now, Ruth, when I say good-bye. God knows if we ever shall meet again, Ruth: but I hope we may.'
'To be sure we shall, ' she answered in her brightest manner. 'Try not to look wretched, John: you are as happy as a Maypole.'
'And you as a rose in May,' I said; 'and pretty nearly as pretty. Give my love to Uncle Ben; and I trust him to keep on the winning side.'
'Of that you need have no misgivings. Never yet has he failed of it. Now, Cousin Ridd, why go you not? You hurried me so at breakfast time?'
'My only reason for waiting, Ruth, is that you have not kissed me, as you are almost bound to do, for the last time perhaps of seeing me.'
'Oh, if that is all, just fetch the stool; and I will do my best, cousin.'
'I pray you be not so vexatious; you always used to do it nicely, without any stool, Ruth.'
'Ah, but you are grown since then, and become a famous man, John Ridd, and a member of the nobility. Go your way, and win your spurs. I want no lip-service.'
Being at the end of my wits, I did even as she ordered me. At least I had no spurs to win, because there were big ones on my boots, paid for in the Easter bill, and made by a famous saddler, so as never to clog with marsh-weed, but prick as hard as any horse, in reason, could desire. And Kickums never wanted spurs; but always went tail-foremost, if anybody offered them for his consideration.